Welcome to lib.reviews! We're building a free, open and not-for-profit platform for reviewing absolutely anything, in any language.

Show more 

2017-11-16HTML5 video and audio support added
2017-11-8SPARQL that sparkles
2017-11-3Fun with Node 8.9.0 and jsdoc

Teams are groups of like-minded people reviewing things of common interest. Here are a few examples:

Veg(etari)anEdu by VideoHackers

4 stars
A lovingly compiled introduction to the evolutionary origins of our modern diet

Jonathan Silvertown is Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, and a prolific author. His latest book, Dinner with Darwin, provides a highly compressed summary of what evolutionary biology can tell us about our food, from the domestication of plants and animals to how we unknowingly harnessed complex microbiology when we learned how to make cheese, wine and beer.

The book is more meticulously researched than most popular science books; the extensive end notes provide many references to recent scientific papers. But it maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, beginning with an imaginary reunion dinner with our hominin ancestors. This narrative device leads us to an exploration of different food groups like fish, bread, meat, vegetables, desserts, and alcohol.

In each of these contexts, we are served morsels of knowledge: about how wheat’s massive genome (much larger than our own!) has allowed it to adapt to many different climates; about why our sense of smell is crucial to our ability to discern flavors; about how our ape-like ancestors’ acquired ability to eat rotten fruit set the stage for humanity’s roller-coaster relationship with alcohol.

Wild mustard selection illustration
There are many visually powerful ways to explain the impact of artificial selection, such as this illustration of wild mustard selection from the University of Berkeley’s Evolution Library. Unfortunately, “Dinner with Darwin” lacks visual explanations, aside from a few (useful) maps.

The book ends with a brief discussion of the future of food, including a vigorous defense of genetic engineering to support the survival of our ever-growing population in the face of climate change. In this brief chapter, Silvertown doesn’t touch on topics like biological patents and biodiversity, and in this respect, his argument feels a bit unfair to critics of agri-corporations who have more nuanced pro-science perspectives (e.g., critiques of biopiracy and of patentability per se).

The acknowledgments begin on page 197, making the book a quick and pleasurable read that may leave you hungry for more. There are six maps, but no photos or illustrations, which is a bit of a missed opportunity—whether the author is discussing the artificial selection of plants towards non-shattering seed heads, or the hybridization of yeast strains to achieve properties such as cold resistance, there are many occasions where visual explanations would have helped.

Regardless, you are almost certain to learn something new in each chapter. The book, then, is more of a starter course: after reading it, you may want to dive deeper into topics like artificial selection, re-examine your gardening practices from an evolutionary perspective, or start your own alcohol experiments (of the highly scientific variety, of course). 4 out of 5 stars.


4 stars
Incomplete answers to difficult physics questions, and puns - oh, so many puns

If you have a casual interest in physics, it can seem impossible to keep up with the field: what’s a boson and what does Higgs have to do with it? What are “gravitation waves”—indeed, what is gravity anyway? Is string theory still a credible contender as a “Theory of Everything”? Will the Large Hadron Collider destroy the world, and if not, what good is it?

Every year, many books make an attempt to summarize our current best understanding of key physics concepts to laypersons, either by avoiding the mathematics entirely or by focusing on some key equations. We Have No Idea stands out for two reasons:

  • As the title suggests, it makes an honest attempt to separate the known from the unknown, rather than advancing a given author’s preferred hypothesis for how the universe fits together.

  • The book is peppered with cartoons of pet ferrets planning a water balloon attack against their owner, of particle detectors surrounded by cows (“we’re looking for muuuuuons”), of the authors being embraced by the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendages, … you get the idea.

Example illustration
Unlike this anthropomorphized galaxy, the book does not take itself too seriously.

The book is a collaboration between Jorge Cham, creator of PHDComics, and Daniel Whiteson, Professor of Experimental Particle Physics at the University of California, Irvine. Beside the illustrations, the writing is littered with puns, and almost all the footnotes are a vehicle for dad jokes. But at its heart, the book tackles very big questions, e.g.:

  • What is the universe made of?

  • What are dark matter and dark energy?

  • What are mass, gravity, space?

Throughout the book, the authors keep making the same point over and over again: there are a lot of unanswered questions, controversies, and mysteries that remain. This does in fact get a bit repetitive, but many explanations are lucid and helpful.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Particle physics is Whiteson’s specialty, and it’s especially here that the book shines. The book relates the familiar periodic table to various categorizations of more fundamental particles like quarks and leptons, and arranges them in tables, e.g.: how do different particles transmit force, and how do they react to it? The explanations of relativity are also good, and the cartoons are especially helpful here.

The book dedicates a final chapter to extraterrestrial intelligence (“Are we alone in the universe"?). This is, in my view, the most superfluous chapter: neither author is a biologist, and the brief discussion of the Drake equation does not really go beyond widely understood concepts that have already been covered very well in countless books, documentaries and YouTube videos.

In contrast, there’s not much here about “spooky action at a distance”, quantum teleportation, and some of the other challenging ideas in quantum physics. Nor do interesting “Theory of Everything” contenders like Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis get any attention.

The Verdict

For a general audience, I would give the book 4 out of 5 stars—some content is a bit too banal and there are some missed opportunities to tackle even weirder ideas and observations in physics, but many explanations and analogies are useful and entertaining.

The “punniness” may get on some readers’ nerves, but it does help to make the book a breezy read even at >350 pages. I would highly recommend the book as a gift for younger readers, as an introduction to how much and how little we know about our weird and wonderful universe.

Further Reading

On the book’s website, the authors have done an excellent job collecting additional helpful links about the book, so I’m taking the liberty of quoting them in full:

Read this excerpt on the PHD website, or this excerpt on Popular Science Magazine. Nautilus Magazine also published this excerpt about space, and BBC Sky at Night reviewed our book and interviewed Jorge (as did Chemistry World in their podcast and in print). Meanwhile, Nature interviewed Jorge and Daniel in their podcast, while Nature Physics gave the book an awesome review. Jorge illustrated over 26 reviews of the book from Amazon, and was interviewed by the NPR show Inquiry. Daniel was interviewed for NPR’s Here and Now. If you’d like to know how Jorge and Daniel started working together, Physics World published the oral history of our collaboration. We also made awesome video collaborations based on chapters of the book with Henry Reich of Minute Physics, Minute Earth, Hank Green’s SciShow Space and Dianna Cowern’s Physics Girl. Check out this great article on Symmetry Magazine about our book and this awesome editorial by Daniel on the need to teach the unknown. Listen to Daniel talk about the Universe on The Lopate Show or read this interview with Jorge and Daniel on Unbound Worlds. Check out this fun comic collaboration with SMBC’s Zach Weinersmith. And this one with David Malki’s Wondermark. Listen to Daniel introduce why we wrote the book on the PRH Audio website. And listen to this preview of the audiobook. Read Jorge’s letter announcing the book.


5 stars
An intense, meticulously researched history of the ongoing fight for voting rights in the US

We have a tendency to view history in chapters with clear boundaries (“World War II”, “The Cold War”, “Late Capitalism”). But as William Faulkner’s immortal words remind us: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Along with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (review), Ari Berman’s “Give Us the Ballot” is a crucial work published prior to the election of Donald Trump yet essential to understanding it, not as an anomaly but as a continuation of a past that isn’t dead—or past.

Ari Berman is a senior contributing writer for The Nation. His book is a meticulously researched history of voting rights in the United States, with focus on the period from the 1960s to the final years of the Obama administration.

Based in significant part on interviews with more than 130 individuals, including iconic civil rights figures like the late Julian Bond and Rep. John Lewis, Berman’s book brings to life the bloody, sometimes lethal struggles of African-Americans and Latinos to participate in American democracy.

Yes, you will find here a history of the Selma to Montgomery marches and graphic descriptions of racist figures like Jim Clark, whose infamous posse terrorized American citizens with whips and cattle prods. You will find a clear explanation of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its enforcement. But far more important is Berman’s research into what happened in the following decades.

NYT front page after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma
The front page of the New York Times after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama

A History of Counterrevolutions

First, Berman shows the many attempts, especially by southern states, to circumvent the law. From refusing to seat elected black legislators to messing with district boundaries and changing election rules, every dirty trick was tried to maintain white supremacy.

Second, the book makes it clear that, at least for a while, a bipartisan consensus in Congress helped protect the right to vote against many of those efforts. Ultimately, it was the Supreme Court, not Congress, that declawed the Voting Rights Act, just when it was urgently needed again (Shelby v. Holder).

Finally, Berman documents how the Republican Party (GOP), as the inevitable consequence of the Southern Strategy it embraced in the 1960s, became the party of voter suppression and racially charged stereotyping. Minorities and low-income voters overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, so whether or not GOP legislators harbor any racist sentiments, strategies that effectively suppress the vote of those demographics help GOP candidates.

As Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich put it chillingly in a 1980 speech to evangelicals (video courtesy of PFAW; the quote also appears in the book):

I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Since then, the rhetoric has shifted to “election integrity” and “voter fraud” to justify arbitrary changes to voting rules (including elimination of reforms like early voting or same-day registration) and voter ID requirements that disproportionately impact poor people and minorities. Beyond citing the facts, Berman illuminates them through personal stories (page 307):

During the state’s municipal elections in November 2013, [Texas voter Floyd] Carrier, an eighty-three-year-old who had been an army paratrooper in the Korean War, brought his expired driver’s license, VA card, and voter registration card to the polls in China, Texas, where he’d lived and voted for sixty years.

The poll workers immediately recognized Carrier but would not let him vote because, they said, he didn’t have a valid voter ID. “I felt terrible,” Carrier told the court, “because all I did for my country and they turn me down, so I just felt like I wasn’t a citizen anymore.”

I was moved to tears by some of these stories. As horrific as the brutal voter suppression of the Jim Crow era was, the slow unraveling of progress that has been won almost feels worse. But by telling the stories of how people fought back in the past and how they are doing it today, Berman maintains our belief that positive change is possible—it is just not guaranteed.

This book is not always an easy read: there are no illustrations, photos, maps, graphs, or tables to provide visual or quantitative context (statistics like turnout and registration data are always cited in the flow of the text), and Berman’s journalistic approach of introducing person after person after person doesn’t easily translate to a 300+ page book. I found myself repeatedly scanning back for the mentioned names, “who is this again?”

But the payoff is worth it. “Give Us the Ballot” is a crucial history for any political conscious American citizen or resident living now under a President who regularly flirts with autocrats and white supremacists (and happily uses their talking points), and who has launched a thinly disguised federal voter suppression effort. To fight back against this well-organized effort to dismantle democracy, arm yourself with the facts.


5 stars
Excellent free resource for learning a language instead of memorizing it

Language Transfer is one of those projects that represent the Internet at its best: a passionate individual (Mihalis Eleftheriou) and a community of volunteers creating free learning resources for the whole world. Mihalis may well become known as the Sal Khan of language learning, but unlike the well-endowed Khan Academy, the project is entirely funded through small donations, primarily via Patreon.

The LT courses are audio lessons. Mihalis interacts with a student. As you listen, you pause at relevant points to provide your own answer, then compare it with the student’s (and, if different, with Mihalis’ response). There are courses of different degrees of completion in French, Swahili, Italian, Greek, German, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, and English (for Spanish speakers).

In effect, a 10 minute audio file may take you 15-20 minutes to complete. I don’t recommend listening to these courses in the background. They deserve your undivided attention. The courses are carefully edited, so it never feels like you’re wasting time.

I’ve completed the 90 track “Complete Spanish” course and can say that, of all the language learning resources I’ve used in the last year (Duolingo, Lingvist, Mango, and various books), it’s been the most helpful one in helping me understand the language rather than just memorizing words or attempting to intuit rules on my own.

Seeing the connections

Learning a language primarily through memorization can be frustrating. It takes forever to feel like you’re making progress, and irregularities can quickly break your memorization patterns. Instead, Mihalis’ approach is to help you see the connections between languages, and the rules and patterns within them.

This can provide immediate payoff. For example, in the “Complete Spanish” course, Mihalis spends some time early on showing how, in thousands of cases, Spanish words can be constructed from English ones that share the same Latin origin. Rather than spending a lot of time building the initial vocabulary, Mihalis then uses many of these words to construct the first sentences.

Where possible, he explains why exceptions and irregularities exist: vowels that got swallowed over time, words that were transferred into Spanish from a different language like Arabic or Greek, accents that help to avoid ambiguity. He also points out negative language transfer—cases where we may be tempted to mistakenly use rules we’re familiar with. Listen to this example:

Advice like this is incredibly helpful and often omitted in other learning resources. Similarly, Mihalis adds important context about the regional differences (“you may hear it said this way, or that way”). When dealing with difficult parts of the language, like the subjunctive in Spanish, he helpfully reminds us that these are the exciting moments of learning a language: when you become able to express something in a wholly new way.

What’s so powerful about this approach is that it reflects the reality of how languages have spread and developed over time, through human migration, trade, conquest, and local customs. Seeing the connections between languages like English, Spanish and Arabic makes it easier to recognize jingoism and cross-cultural prejudices for what they are.

I recommend Language Transfer without any reservations, by itself or as a companion to other learning resources. You can play the audio files on the site or download them, including via official .torrent files (here’s the Spanish one). And if you get value out of it, consider making room in your donations budget for a monthly gift.


5 stars
A beautiful coming-of-age story

This story of a year in the life of Jason Taylor, a thirteen-year-old English boy, is one of David Mitchell’s most down-to-Earth books, subtle but not simple. Full of beautiful vignettes and aphorisms (Taylorisms?), Black Swan Green is at times to funny and evocative that it made me laugh out loud while reading. The year is 1982, Great Britain is about to enter the Falklands War, and Jason is a stammering, confused kid who writes poetry and is trying to make sense of his world.

David Mitchell can’t quite resist sometimes pushing Jason Taylor aside and taking over in his own voice, causing dissonant ripples in the story’s flow. But when Jason’s voice comes through loud and clear, Mitchell succeeds in revealing the timeless sense of wonder behind the papier-mâché mask of our adulthood. 4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up.


Section 31: Abyss (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
3 stars
An entertaining DS9 novel that doesn't quite deliver on its intriguing premise

Abyss, published in 2001, is the third novel of the “DS9 relaunch”, a series of books and comics that continue the story of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine beyond the excellent television series, which ended after 176 episodes in 1999.

Abyss focuses on Doctor Julian Bashir’s continued entanglements with the mysterious and amoral intelligence agency that calls itself “Section 31”. In a galaxy where many planets, including Earth, have chosen the path of cooperation through the United Federation of Planets, Section 31 claims to quietly do the Federation’s “dirty work” necessary to keep the peace—even if it involves mass murder.

Section 31 recruits Bashir on a mission to subvert a secret base run by a genetically enhanced scientist like himself. (Bashir, for his part, hopes to also collect information to take down Section 31.)

In Star Trek’s alternative history of Earth, genetic engineering ultimately led to the Eugenics Wars, where enhanced “superhumans” nearly destroyed the planet. After the wars, genetic enhancement became taboo, and those who (like Bashir and his adversary) live with such enhancements are regarded with suspicion.

Bashir tried to use his talents for good, while his opponent appears to more interested in using his expertise to breed an army of super-soldiers and take on the Federation.

The premise is interesting enough, and much of the story is quite captivating. Unfortunately, the book loses steam in its final third. Neither Section 31 nor Bashir’s confrontation with his enemy really get the space they deserve. Instead, the book spends a bit too much time on an Avatar-style subplot of an oppressed local population, and on Ro Laren (who is DS9’s security officer in the relaunch, and a part of Bashir’s team for the mission) being angry.

Bashir fans will likely still enjoy this novel, and it integrates nicely into the DS9 relaunch series. Personally, I would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded down—a solid premise, well-paced, but limited resolution and payoff.


4 stars
A very creepy little book building on "The Bone Clocks" and earlier works

David Mitchell, best known for Cloud Atlas, can be a difficult writer to appreciate. In the same book, he often hops from genre to genre: crime, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, you name it. With books like Thousand Autumns, you think you’re reading historical fiction, but then it turns out that there’s a supernatural component, which then ties into his larger fictional universe. In many of his novels, there’s a lot to unpack before you get to the payoff.

With Slade House, Mitchell delivers something much simpler: a straightforward horror story. And this one really packs a punch. It’s a tale of a haunted house that is also a feeding ground—and those who enter are the food. While Slade House very explicitly ties into the story told in his previous novel, The Bone Clocks, this isn’t a sequel. It’s more of a brief, optional detour during the larger epic Mitchell appears to be weaving.

Through a set of short sequences set years apart from each other, Mitchell manages to really drive the horror of Slade House home in a way that I can only describe as “gut-wrenching”. Don’t expect too much from this short book—think of it more like one of Stephen King’s better horror novellas. This is no Cloud Atlas, nor does it pretend to be; nonetheless, I found it well worth the quick read. 4 out of 5 stars.


3 stars
An entertaining read about an ultimately elusive subject: the power of narratives

What literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall is attempting to do here may seem quixotic: to pin down what makes stories such powerful drivers of human action, often by using more anecdotes and stories to do so.

From the often violent stories children make up to the wild tales our brains concoct while we sleep, Gottschall does make a good case that stories relate crucially to our survival. They often help us imagine worst-case scenarios, to play through possibilities, or to think ahead. Modern manifestations of story consumption, from binge watching Netflix to playing video games, may appeal to us simply because they plug into a “hardwired” readiness to invent and imagine.

References to studies are sprinkled across the book. Some of the science will likely be familiar to many readers, from the bizarre findings of split-brain research to Elizabeth Loftus’ well-known investigations of the fallibility of human memory. These examples are used to illustrate the brain’s remarkable tendency to confabulate.

To further explore the dark side of our storytelling habit, Gottschall relates the case of James Tilly Matthews’ paranoid delusions about a group of villains known as the “air loom gang”. But he casts Matthews’ fascinating delusions into the format of a short fantasy story to make the point that creativity and madness have much in common.

A discussion of conspiracy theories, including Alex Jones’ notorious Infowars website, and of the delusions that motivated some of history’s darkest figures adds to these observations. If Gottschall had written this book during or after America’s fateful 2016 election year, he might have attempted to equip the reader with better self-defense tools against propaganda and made-up nonsense.

As it is, the author’s objective here is simply to examine what makes stories special in our minds That question relates so deeply to the foundations of our emotional experience of the world that the answer is perhaps bound to be a little unsatisfactory to knowledge seekers. If, on the other hand, you’re simply looking for a good yarn about stories, you may get a kick out of this one. 3.5 stars, rounded down since I was hoping for more knowledge and less story.


4 stars
An intro to the universe that combines Dawkins' love for science with his fervent rationalism

There are countless science books for kids, teens and lifelong learners, with titles like “How Much is a Million?” or “Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes”. The best of these books celebrate wonder and the beauty of elegant explanations. Most avoid the rocky terrain of religion and spirituality. Why limit the audience of a general science book by engendering controversy and criticism?

But Richard Dawkins is no stranger to controversy. With books like “The God Delusion”, he has become a leading figure of the New Atheist movement. As an evolutionary biologist, he has been especially concerned with the religious efforts, sometimes masquerading as science, to promote creationism and undermine science. His book “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” (reviews) remains one of the best general introductions to evolutionary biology I know.

“The Magic of Reality”, as its title suggests, has an even larger scope: it seeks to foster curiosity and contrasts scientific explanations for life, the universe and everything with mythology. Its target audience are teens, though the book is readable with some help by younger kids and enjoyable for older readers as well.

The book is richly illustrated by Dave McKean, whose previous work has helped bring to life stories by Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King. You may want to invest in (or borrow) the hardcover edition, which gives the photos and illustrations the space they deserve.

Given its large scope, the selection of topics in “Magic” is necessarily somewhat arbitrary. The chapter headings are:

  1. What is reality? What is magic?

  2. Who was the first person?

  3. Why are there so many different kinds of animals?

  4. What are things made of?

  5. Why do we have night and day, winter and summer?

  6. What is the sun?

  7. What is a rainbow?

  8. When and how did everything begin?

  9. Are we alone?

  10. What is an earthquake?

  11. Why do bad things happen?

  12. What is a miracle?

Most chapters begin with myths, and biblical myths get no special treatment here: stories by “Tasmanian aborigines” are told side-by-side with those of “the Hebrew tribes of the Middle East”. This diversity is very refreshing, and the illustrations help the reader to immerse herself in each myth or story.

This is followed by Dawkins’ best shot at an explanation for the “real story”, ranging from evolution by natural selection to tectonic plates, the refraction of light, or the Earth’s tilted axis of rotation relative to its orbital plane.

A few times, Dawkins writes things like this:

Well then, does our quest to cut things ever smaller and smaller end with these particles: electrons, protons and neutrons? No—even protons and neutrons have an inside. Even they contain yet smaller things, called quarks. But that is something I’m not going to talk about in this book. That’s not because I think you wouldn’t understand it. It is because I know I don’t understand it.

Dawkins’ willingness to admit ignorance and uncertainty, too, is refreshing, though there are times when then book would have benefited from a co-author with a different background (a physicist, for example) to flesh out an explanation. The quoted passage is perhaps one of those times: quantum physics is wild and beautiful enough to deserve more space in a book about the magic of reality.

Pages about dust mites from The Magic of Reality
Almost every page is illustrated with photographs or drawings. Most chapters begin with stories from mythology, but when talking about things that are small to see with the naked eye, Dawkins points out the notable absence of myths that predict or describe them.

Dawkins does succeed in making connections between the chapters, but overall, some topical transitions are a bit abrupt (“let’s talk about life on other planets - now let’s talk about earthquakes”).

Throughout the book, Dawkins acknowledges the beauty of myth while contrasting it with the “magic of the real”. He is especially critical of flimflam artists who try to convince people of supernatural powers, while his criticism of religion is not as pronounced and explicit as in some of his other works.

In the last chapter (“What is a miracle?”) the book echoes Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”, conveying similar lessons about critical thinking to a younger audience. Where Sagan gave his readers a “Baloney Detection Kit”, Dawkins uses a few simple examples (e.g., the Cottingley Fairies, the Fatima apparitions) to contrast the belief in miracles with more plausible explanations.

The Verdict

“The Magic of Reality” is a beautiful book, and I can recommend it as a gift, especially to curious younger people, or as a refresher intro to some basic scientific observations about the world we live in. It leaves the reader hungry for more, which is one of the best things one could ask for from a science book for young audiences. Its willingness to contrast science and myth makes it a relatively rare treat.

My main criticisms are that the book would have benefited from a bit more physics content, and more work on the overall narrative structure (through chronology, scale, historical figures, or some other structuring device). Recommended; 4 out of 5 stars.


New Internationalist
4 stars
A critical view of global events, featuring authentic voices from around the world

In the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, many socialist and progressive publications were born. Most are long gone; New Internationalist, founded in 1973 in the UK, is a notable exception. Not only has it survived well into the 21st century, it has proven its adaptability through a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $900K in donations.

Through its history, the publication has focused on liberation and decolonization movements around the world and on the global impact of unbridled capitalism. It was one of the first publications to highlight the dangers of Nestlé’s efforts to market infant formula milk in the developing world; decades later, it played a similar role in raising awareness of fracking.

A significant part of New Internationalist’s ethos is to “give space for people to tell their
own stories”, that is, to feature international writers instead of Western “experts” and correspondents. This helps to lend an authenticity to its reporting that many other publications lack.

New Internationalist "baby milk" cover
The provocative April 1982 cover of New Internationalist, revisiting the issue of infant formula milk.

New Internationalist also operates the Ethical Shop, which sells books, calendars, clothing, and various other merchandise. This includes original publications, such as the series of “No-Nonsense Guides” on topics ranging from global finance to drug legalization. Other products are sold together with partner charities. The shop follows a Buying Policy that seeks to promote good labor and environmental practices.

While it tends to support left-wing politics, New Internationalist is not an explicitly socialist magazine.

Finances, Transparency, Impact

Many of the US-based nonprofit media we have reviewed are dependent on grants, awarded from the fortunes amassed by the likes of Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, Herbert Sandler, or previous generations of industrialists. This can create a bias towards elite audiences and away from highly contentious topics (see, e.g., Rodney Benson: Can foundations solve the journalism crisis?).

In contrast, the revenue supporting New Internationalist comes from people buying digital and print publications, or ordering other products from the Ethical Shop. This is broken down in percentages in the 2013/14 Annual Report, which does however not include GBP (£) figures. Indeed, the New Internationalist website includes no direct reference to organizational internals, and I did not receive a response to a contact inquiry asking for more recent information.

This lack of transparency is all the more regrettable given that the organization is run as a co-op with a non-hierarchical structure, very unlike the top-down model that is typical for US nonprofits. The rest of the world would benefit from learning more about this approach from those who practice it.

The UK Companies House report for New Internationalist Publications Ltd. shows net assets of 853K GBP (about 1.15M USD) as of March 31, 2016.

As of this writing, New Internationalist has about 37.8K followers on Twitter and about 80K on Facebook. These numbers should have some room to grow; consider, for example, that Positive News (also UK-based, also a co-op, with a smaller budget and smaller print circulation) has about 260K Facebook followers.

Design and Apps

The New Internationalist website is a minimalist feed of articles that mixes shorter posts and features, without any apparent prioritization beyond recency. Stories are tagged with regions and topics, which can be used to explore the large library of articles. The site is reasonably mobile-friendly. Some readers may have difficulty with the relatively low contrast color scheme (an unfortunate recent design trend).

As with many publications from the print era, only a subset of New Internationalist content is available for free online. If you prefer digital over a print subscription, you can purchase and read the magazine on Android or iOS devices via the respective apps (New Internationalist for Android, New Internationalist for iOS).

The Android app works well enough, though there are a few annoyances; for example, wide tables require horizontal scrolling, but accidental “swipe” gestures trigger moving from one article to the next, making it almost impossible to actually view wide tables. On the plus side, the article text is readable, and tables are presented as tables rather than as embedded images.

"New Internationalist" Android app
You can purchase full copies of the magazine via the Android and iOS apps.

An alternative to buying copies through the apps is purchasing them through Zinio and reading the magazine through its dedicated reader. As far as I can tell, there is no option to purchase and download DRM-free PDF files, and I found no evidence that any part of New Internationalist (web or app) is developed as open source software. New Internationalist articles are under conventional copyright (as opposed to a Creative Commons license).

Content Example: “The Equality Effect”

While not all content is available for free, many feature stories are posted in full. “The Equality Effect” is such a feature story, written by Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford and author of a book with the same title. In fact, much of the July issue was dedicated to the issue of inequality and edited by Dorling.

The article is analytical, making the case that inequality is the source of a large number of social ills, and not at all unavoidable. Rather than promoting a specific political ideology, Dorling is making a case to consider policies addressing inequality on their merits:

Although leftwing and green politicians tend to advocate greater equality more vocally, and rightwing and fascist ones tend to oppose it, equality is actually not the preserve of any political label. Great inequality has been sustained or increased under systems labelled as socialist and communist. Some free-market systems have seen equalities grow and the playing field become more level. Anarchistic systems can be either highly equitable or inequitable.

At the bottom of the article is a carousel of “related articles”, some from the same issue. It’s easy to miss that Dorling wrote another piece in the July issue expanding on his argument: “The rich, poor and the earth”. It cites additional data and attempts to show correlations between inequality and waste production, CO2 emissions, and meat consumption.

"Meat consumption" chart from Dorling's article
As presented, this chart does not support the thesis of the article that inequality is meaningfully correlated with meat consumption, let alone that there is a causal relationship.

Skeptical readers will find the analysis here to be lacking in rigor. Dorling dismisses outliers; in the case of the “meat consumption” chart, France, Germany, and the UK show very similar levels of meat consumption in spite of large differences in inequality. Eliminate the US and even the appearance of a correlation largely disappears; in any case, a correlation coefficient is not given.

With these kinds of charts, there are many ways to demonstrate the result you want: by cherry-picking countries, by picking the measure of inequality that shows the strongest correlation, and by only considering alternative explanations for data points that disagree with the hypothesis (“their cultural histories are bound up with the rearing of sheep and cattle”).

Data scientists warn that much more visually compelling spurious correlations can be found between many completely unrelated measures, and that even peer reviewed science is routinely subject to data dredging and p-hacking. “Science isn’t broken, it’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for,” warned a must-read article by FiveThirtyEight science writer Christie Aschwanden.

The thematic focus on inequality is laudable, and it makes sense that New Internationalist would invite an accomplished academic writer on this topic as guest editor. In fact, the much larger Guardian also published Dorling’s bubble chart analysis uncritically. Still, we should expect a greater level of empirical rigor in unpacking complex issues such as this one.

Content Example: “The Many Roots of Homelessness”

Civil war, mental illness, poverty, gang violence: the many roots of homelessness” is a more conventional storytelling piece from the June issue that shares personal narratives of people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity from the Philippines, Great Britain, the United States and, Mexico.

This short article showcases New Internationalist’s strength in featuring authentic voices from around the globe. For example, Maria from the Philippines describes the economic pressure which forces her family to live in a slum:

We found a room for rent in the nearby block. It cost $50 a month. It’s expensive and eats a huge chunk of Marvin’s monthly income of $119. I can’t work yet because I have to take care of our baby, Mark. So this is our home for now.

This kind of storytelling is crucial to overcome stereotypes and to challenge the stigma often associated with homelessness.

The Verdict

New Internationalist is important: it sheds light on underreported injustices and amplifies the voices of activists who seek to bring about positive change. As a left-wing publication, it occupies a relatively lonely space by taking an impact-oriented international view without being stridently ideological.

It has outlasted many other magazines and successfully made its way into the 21st century, but not without stumbling. The website and apps still have a few mostly minor bugs; the site design suffers from small readability issues and lacks clear organizing principles; the level of transparency is below some other mature nonprofits of similar size (compare Truthout’s timely and comprehensive Annual Reports, for example).

You will find many stories here that nobody else is covering, with larger ambition and reach than other publications we’ve reviewed, and the editorial quality is generally high. When tackling complex topics, New Internationalist would benefit from more rigorous internal review to ensure the highest possible quality of reporting. Recommended; 4 out of 5 stars.

 Older reviews